Take A Walk On The Wild Side: Enjoying Miami's Natural Wonders
Miami may be best known as a sexy and sophisticated global urban playground, but one of its greatest allures is its natural charms.
Just under an hour’s drive from the glittering city, two extraordinary national parks beckon, giving travelers the option to get away from it all. When they’re ready for the sights and sounds of the city, they can be part of it all again in just over 45 minutes.
A peerless and wondrous environment, the Florida Everglades and Biscayne National Parks draw approximately 1.5 million visitors each year to explore Florida's breathtaking wilderness. For travelers who need an even quicker walk on the wild side, there are many natural opportunities even closer to civilization, from canoeing down a quiet waterway and jet skiing on Biscayne Bay to biking along peaceful back roads and hiking to a pond where wading birds gather. Here, cameras click not for divas and movie stars, but for loveable manatees and sea turtles, amazing alligators or the more than 350 species of birds and glorious sunsets over the River of Grass.
For those who prefer a more hands-on or educational interaction with wildlife and nature, Greater Miami and the Beaches offers many opportunities. From eco-adventure tours to special wildlife enrichment programs, Miami offers many ways to immerse yourself in Florida's unparalleled ecosystems.
Everglades National Park
Covering 1.5 million acres, (607,000 hectares) Everglades National Park is the third largest in the lower 48 states of the U.S. National Parks system. Made up of sawgrass prairies, mangrove swamps, subtropical jungle and the warm waters of Florida Bay, the park and its seemingly endless grassy waters are home to a rare community of plants and endangered animals.
Visitors to the park can enjoy self-guided and ranger-led tours and activities from the Main Visitor Center at the Park's southeastern entrance, or journey deeper into the Everglades for a more extensive experience in the Florida wilderness. The town of Flamingo, 38 miles from the park's main entrance, boasts a colorful history as the home to hardy pioneers and shady characters who spent many years trying to settle the beautifully remote but challenging area. Today, Flamingo is home to manatees, dolphins, sea turtles as well as more than 350 species of birds identified within the park, including pelicans, egrets, cormorants, bald eagles and ospreys. And, the combination of fresh, salt and brackish waters makes Florida Bay the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles (in this case, the rare American crocodile) live together. World-class fishing is one of Flamingo's irresistible lures. The park's waters provide thousands of acres for fishing: shallow water flats channels, and mangrove keys are home to snook, redfish, snapper, trout, largemouth bass, and sea catfish.
For those who long to go natural, backcountry camping in the park is an unforgettable experience. Visitors traveling along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway can paddle all day without seeing another soul, and spend the night camping out on remote chickees -- raised platform campsites accessible only by water. Permits and reservations are required, but advance notice of only 24 hours is necessary.
To the north, the Shark Valley entrance to the Park offers one of the best places to observe wildlife. Take a tram tour or rent a bike to traverse a 15-mile route. A 65-foot observation tower gives you a bird’s eye view of the River of Grass.
Biscayne National Park
A rarity among national parks, Biscayne National Park is primarily aquatic. Of its 180,000 acres (72843 hectares), 95 percent are under water. Teeming with sea life and plants, the park encompasses the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay, the longest stretch of mangrove forest left on Florida's east coast, living coral reefs and 40 of the northernmost Florida Keys. Getting out on the water is the key to discovering the wonders of Biscayne National Park. At the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, it is possible to join glass bottom boat tours, snorkeling and dive trips and island excursions, as well as to rent canoes and kayaks. Fishing is excellent, with snapper, snook and barracuda among the most common catch.
Patch reefs provide a snorkeler's paradise. In shallow waters less than 10 feet (3 meters) deep, the living coral is home to a variety of sea life including tropical fish, sponges and the spiny lobster. Manatees, dolphins and five species of sea turtles call the waters of Biscayne Bay home, as do moray eels, stingrays, squid, starfish and hundreds of varieties of fish, large and small.
Closer to what is consistently ranked among America’s top urban beaches, divers can enjoy the bounty of one of the largest artificial-reef programs in the world. With its close proximity to the Bahamas and the Gulf Steam, Miami enjoys beautiful diving conditions year round. Boasting water temperatures from 70 (21º C) to 85 degrees (29º C), visibility often better than 75 feet (23 meters), and one of the largest artificial reef programs in the world, Miami is a road-less-traveled diver’s dream.
Fish flock to the more than 75 ships, combat tanks, concrete, limestone and other structures have been sunk over the past few decades off Miami's coast, as far south as Florida City and north to Sunny Isles Beach. Most are located just a few miles offshore, in less than 130 feet (40 meters) of water, providing great diving for all levels. One of the most popular routes is the Wreck Trek, located off Miami Beach, just north of the Art Deco District. Here, divers can explore the 85-foot (26 meters) tug Miss Patricia, the 100-foot (30 meters) steel fishing vessel Miss Karline, a 75-foot (23 meters) barge and Ben’s Antenna Reef, an old radio antenna welded into 19 pyramids. Part of Hollywood history, the nearby 180-foot (55 meters) freighter Tortuga was sunk for the 1995 movie "Fair Game," while the 1989 sinking of the Rio Miami was filmed for the popular U.S. evening news program ABC’s 20/20. In shallow waters off of Key Biscayne, the Half Moon, a racing sailboat which sank in 1930, offers divers a fabulous underwater archeological preserve to explore.
Natural reefs are also found off Key Biscayne, Miami Beach, Surfside and Sunny Isles Beach. One of the best hidden gem reef sites is Emerald Reef, one of Miami's largest natural reefs which offers many large rocks for interesting critters to hide out in, including lobsters early in the season.
The Redland and Homestead
Just 45 minutes south of the city is the Redland, Miami’s abundant agricultural region. Here, in this agricultural paradise, visitors can spend an entire day sampling fresh-from-the-farm produce and savoring the exotic fruits and vegetables that have become the foundation for "Floribbean" or “New World” cuisine.
Exploring the back roads by bicycle, locals and tourists line up at Burr's Berry Farm for delicious strawberry shakes or at quaint Knauss Berry Farm for their sticky-sweet cinnamon rolls. All roads lead to Robert is Here, a popular pit stop for visitors en route to Everglades National Park. For decades, Robert has offered guava, lychee, mamey, mangos and other exotic tropical fruits along with his famous fresh fruit shakes and homemade key lime pies. In season, visitors can harvest their own vegetables, loading up on fresh tomatoes, strawberries, zucchini, cucumbers and other produce at the many U-Pick farms that line Krome Avenue and the surrounding streets. Nearby the Schnebly Redland's Winery & Brewery offers innovative wines and beers crafted from tropical fruits unique to South Florida – a hidden gem for wine lovers looking to taste on a new frontier.
Open daily, the Fruit and Spice Park, nearly 40 acres (16 hectares) in size, is a one-of-a-kind tropical botanical garden has more than 500 varieties of fruit, nut and spice trees on property. Or, by appointment, one can arrange to visit orchid groves or check out small boutique farms that grow specialties like baby lettuce and exotic fruits like papaya. At the end of a long day of wandering through bird and butterfly sanctuaries, tropical nurseries and fruit groves, charming bed and breakfasts, such as the lushly landscaped Grove Inn or Ten Oaks, provide respite.
Schnebly Redland's Winery, the southernmost winery in the Continental U.S., uses local tropical fruits from Redland's orchards to produce an array of wines made from lychee, passion fruit, carambola, guava and mango, just to name a few. Visitors are offered tours and wine tastings around natural coral waterfalls surrounded by lush tropical foliage.
On the way back north, eco-adventurers will want to tour the 450-acre (182 hectares) Deering Estate, located at the edge of Biscayne Bay. A wealth of natural and archaeological resources, thrive at this site, including forests of hardwood hammocks, globally endangered pine rockland, mangroves and salt marshes and rare and native plants like orchids, bromeliads, ferns and more than 40 types of trees. A variety of wildlife such as the gray fox, spotted skunks, squirrels, butterflies and birds can be found here.
The Miami-Dade Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces offers a variety of naturalist-led eco-adventures to residents and visitors. Key Biscayne, the tranquil island paradise located just five minutes from downtown Miami, is the setting for a wide range of tours – with hammock walks, kayak, snorkel and canoe trips, and bike trips for all age groups and skill levels. Canoe trips are popular – and there seems to be one for every conceivable interest – along the Coral Gables Waterway, at sunrise, sunset or by moonlight, along the historic Oleta River and through the hidden waterways of Key Biscayne.
Sea turtle release programs take place on coastal beaches from Key Biscayne to Sunny Isles, with educational opportunities focused at Crandon and Haulover Parks during the height of the April through September hatching season. The Key Biscayne Nature Center, housed in a beautiful building at Crandon Park, offers a year-round program of aquatic and land-based adventures. At the tip of Key Biscayne, more snorkeling, fishing and nature walks are on tap at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, frequently listed among the top ten beaches in America.
Dragonfly Expeditions offers nature lovers the chance to experience one of the world’s most beautiful and threatened wild places in a unique and personal way on its “Everglades Backwater Tour.” Trained field biologists and naturalist guides lead guests through this enchanting ecosystem, teaching about the flora and fauna surrounding as they wade through the clear waters – something very few travelers experience. They also offer the “Great Discoveries on the Bay: A Kayak Journey” tour, where guests paddle along the exquisite coastline of Biscayne Bay and observe wildlife as they experience the feeling of walking on a sandbar. They can also journey into an inlet created by mangroves that is teeming with life, while they learn about the history and ecology of the area.
For those seeking a tamer walk on the wild side, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden offers themed walking tours on weekends, on topics ranging from Biodiverstiy and the Rainforest to Butterfly gardening, biding and more. Guests will have the opportunity to explore Fairchild’s plant collections up close and personal with the guidance of experts. Also on weekends, guests can take part in the “Butterflies and their Host Plants” guided walking tour, where they can search for 45 butterfly species in the garden and identify the larval host plants and nectar plants which draw them.
Nature Immersion at Attractions
You don’t need to go into nature to experience its wonders. The Sea Trek Reef Encounter at Miami Seaquarium is a helmet diving experience that allows guests to become one with the park’s reef aquarium, while moving in ethereal slow motion in a near zero gravity diving system, while their Dolphin Encounter lets you swim and play with these delightful creatures.
Jungle Island’s Lemur Experience brings small groups of guests in the park’s Lemur Nursery, where rare red-ruffed and black-and-white ruffed lemurs are growing up and developing. Their VIP Safari offers guests a privately guided, 90-minute behind-the-scenes tour of the Jungle that brings guests closer than ever to some of the world’s most rare and fascinating animals, with personal interactions with everything from red-ruffed lemurs, one of the rarest animals on earth, to the only tame Cassowary on the planet. The Cassowary, native to New Guinea, is one of the most lethal birds on the planet, yet on Jungle Island, guests can get closer than ever to this stunning and graceful beauty.
Zoo Miami offers an intimate 90-minute Behind-the-Scenes Tour, where they can meet knowledgeable zookeepers and collect memorable experiences with incredible animals. The children's zoo lets little ones interact with small animals, from Stitch, the blue-tongue skink (lizard) to Maggie, the blue and gold macaw and take a memorable photo astride a camel. The park also features Zoo-ins on weekends, a fun sleepover program including a personalized behind-the-scenes walking tour of selected zoo exhibits, pizza dinner, accommodations in an air-conditioned building, and a special morning activity.
Surrounded by water, blessed with great weather and unparalleled natural beauty, Miami offers the sophisticated traveler the chance to take a quiet moment to recharge, relax and unwind. Just minutes away from the city's pulsating rhythms, a different beat beckons. Why choose? In any given moment, Miami offers the chance to be part of it all or get away from it all. Enjoy all Miami has to offer: expand your horizons with a walk on the wild side. For information on naturalist tours available through Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation, visit the eco-adventures section at www.MiamiDade.gov/parks/ecoadventures.asp.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) is an independent not-for-profit sales and marketing organization whose mission is to attract visitors to Greater Miami and the Beaches for leisure, business and conventions. For a vacation guide, visit our website at www.MiamiAndBeaches.com or call 1-888-76-Miami (US/Canada only) or 305-447-7777. To reach the GMCVB offices dial 305-539-3000. Meeting Planners may call 1-800-933-8448 (US/Canada only) or 305-539-3071 or visit www.MiamiMeetings.com.